TOKYO -- The friendly exchange of views has ended; this past week the United States began slamming Japan on trade.
Since coming into office this summer, the new Japanese government has had amiable top-level discussions with the United States and Russia. With the arrival of U.S. trade negotiators, however, the cheerleading has abruptly stopped, and a new chapter has begun featuring bellicose comments by U.S. officials, speaking before scores of reporters at the U.S. Embassy on the condition they not be named.
At the midway point of a two-week round of trade talks in Tokyo, U.S. representatives threatened to impose their own criteria if an acceptable agreement could not be reached. Discussions on opening markets in insurance and telecommunications occurred in the past few days, with talks on autos, auto parts and medical equipment to follow next week.
Faced with a growing trade surplus, the prospect of closing international markets and rising complaints about the high costs of products sold domestically, Japan is under intense pressure to increase imports.
But efforts to do so in the most obvious areas, such as rice, where Japan has clear shortages and extraordinarily high prices, have met with sharp resistance.
On a separate but related track, access to Japan's construction market is also being negotiated. In all of these areas, U.S. representatives have said the goal is for Japan to allow within three to five years the same approximate penetration of foreign goods and services as is common in other major industrial countries.
In the construction market, which has the most imminent deadline -- Nov. 1 -- before sanctions may be introduced, prospects appear particularly grim. During two days of meetings recently in Hawaii, the Japanese "were barely engaged," a senior official said. "We're ready to talk and we haven't heard 'Boo.' "
After yesterday's talks, a senior U.S. Embassy official said, "Japan lies far outside the norm of other industrial countries in terms of imports of telecommunications products and this is because of foreign procurement problems in Japan."
"Many of the problems we are trying to address in telecommunications," the official added, "are the same in other areas."
More blunt comments were offered Wednesday by another senior U.S. Embassy official after the conclusion of talks on insurance. "The goal is to get the second largest economy in the world in line with the rest of the world," the official said. "We have negotiated for years on process change and procedure change. That is no longer acceptable." The official said the discrepancy between the presence of foreign firms in the insurance market of Japan compared to their presence in the markets of other major industrial countries was "totally out of whack."